A Chinese internet user asked me recently how Hong Kong media could so mercilessly criticize the territory’s chief executive and “top administrator”, Donald Tsang (曾荫权), even without clear proof he had done anything wrong. And how could Hong Kong’s Legislative Council order the chief executive to appear for questioning, and unyieldingly face him as he tearfully apologized?
How could the Legislative Council and the media wield such power?
Before I address these questions, let me first bring everyone up to speed. Not long ago, media revealed that while visiting Macau and Thailand for vacation, Donald Tsang made use of a luxury yacht and private jet belonging to businesspeople he was acquainted with.
It was also found that Tsang was leasing an apartment in Shenzhen, just across the border, from Wong Cho-bau (黄楚标), a mainland Chinese businessman who is also a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a major shareholder of the Digital Broadcasting Group in Hong Kong. Rent for the apartment was estimated at US$23,000 per month.
Even as Tsang insisted he was paying market price for the Shenzhen rental property, and that he had paid for the use his friend’s private jet and yacht, Legislative Council members refused to let the matter drop. On February 27, the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption initiated an investigation into Tsang’s conduct.
On March 1, Donald Tsang appeared at a hearing before the Legislative Council on the alleged misconduct. Tsang, a public servant of 45 years, enjoying a relatively clean reputation — and due, moreover, for retirement in just a few month’s time — admitted that his conduct had shaken public confidence in Hong Kong’s system. He expressed his deepest apologies, and said that although his conscience was clear over the Macau and Thailand matters, he would relinquish the Shenzhen rental property.
We cannot rely on conscience for clean politics. Even less can we rely on the personal moral compass of our political figures to maintain their self-discipline.
Hong Kong, fortunately, relies on its institutions, and on rule of law. Throughout the Donald Tsang matter, we have witnessed the relatively high level of freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong media. In mainland China, it would be impossible to see the “top administrator” of any province or city taken publicly to task on television screens.
Plenty of people from the mainland come “freely” to Hong Kong to visit. They often spend liberally while they are here, buying all sorts of things. But I suggest when any mainlander comes to Hong Kong they also pay close attention to local news programs and newspapers. This would allow them to really enjoy greater freedom during these “free” visits (自由行).
But aside from the media’s role, the Tsang incident has given us a glimpse of the Legislative Council as a check on the power of the chief executive. So exactly what kind of body is the Legislative Council?
For the basics, we can turn to Articles 66 through 79 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which outlines the constitution, powers and functions of the Legislative Council. The Basic Law specifies that the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by election, and that its role is to enact, amend or repeal laws in accordance with the provisions of this Law and legal procedures; to examine and approve budgets introduced by the government; to approve taxation and public expenditure; to endorse the appointment and removal of the judges of the Court of Final Appeal and the Chief Judge of the High Court; and to initiative a motion for impeachment of the Chief Executive in cases of “serious breach of law or dereliction of duty,” etcetera.
Seeing Hong Kong’s chief on the television screen tearfully facing steely members of the Legislative Council, internet users in mainland China have felt a mix of admiration and envy. In fact, there’s no cause for them to feel left out. Just about every country in the world has a body like the Legislative Council. They have one in Taiwan. And, yes, there’s even one in mainland China.
In the United States they call it the Congress. In some countries it’s a parliament. In Taiwan it’s called the Legislative Yuan (立法院).
In mainland China? It’s called the National People’s Congress. And — ah, the coincidence! — right now the annual event of the “two meetings” (of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress) is being held in Beijing!
But seriously, how can I possibly say that the National People’s Congress is the same sort of organization as Hong Kong’s Legislative Council?
Turn to China’s Constitution, or to any middle school textbook, and you’ll learn that the National People’s Congress is the highest organ of state power in the People’s Republic of China. Delegates to the National People’s Congress, and the various local congresses, are to be democratically elected. Moreover, the principle functions of the NPC and it’s Standing Committee are as follows:
It exercises the state power of amending the Constitution and supervising the enforcement of the Constitution; enacts basic laws of the state; elects and decides on the choices of the leading personnel of the highest state organs of China, including the President and Vice President, the choice of the Premier of the State Council and other component members of the State Council; elects the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and decide on the choice of other component members of the Central Military Commission; elects the President of the Supreme People’s Court and the Procurator-General of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate; examines and approves the plan for national economic and social development and the report on its implementation; examines and approves the state budget and the report on its implementation; and make decisions on other important issues in national life.
If we compare the functions of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and the National People’s Congress we find that there are no real differences — basically, both enact laws, supervise the work of government organs, appoint and remove ministers and other officials.
Of course, there is one major difference, and that is that the National People’s Congress is controlled entirely by the Chinese Communist Party.
While chief executives in Hong Kong have the power under the Basic Law to dissolve the Legislative Council, they have no power over the council itself. Based on my observations, Hong Kong’s chief executive never appears before the Legislative Council in a leadership capacity but always to be subjected to supervision and criticism.
The limitations and supervision exercised by the Legislative Council do not weaken political power in Hong Kong, or do harm to its political system, but quite the contrary give the Hong Kong people greater confidence in the system.
Just as Hong Kong’s Basic Law technically falls under China’s Constitution, so we might say that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council falls under the National People’s Congress. It is my hope that people’s congresses across China will take cues from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, that they will fully take up and act on their function under the law as a check on government power.
As a general rule, when a nation’s parliament is rancorous, when its members constantly take the government to task, its society is correspondingly harmonious. If, however, a nation’s parliament is polite, self-congratulatory and flooded with applause, its society is almost certainly without harmony.
The kind of democratic elections we’ve seen recently in Taiwan may be quite some distance off. But we can take heart in knowing that freedom and rule of law are possible right at China’s side, here in Hong Kong — even as it falls under Beijing’s leadership.
Where should we kick off a new round of reforms? We might as well start right here in Hong Kong.